Last week Laura Hoover, a grandmother in Oregon, shared photos online of her 6-year-old grandson, Hunter, serving detention at lunch. In the photo you can see Hunter sitting not just by himself during lunch, but with a divider board around him, completely isolating him from his classmates. Hoover captioned the photos by saying:
“This is my grandson, Hunter. He’s a little first grader. His momma’s car sometimes doesn’t like to start right up. Sometimes he’s a couple minutes late to school. Yesterday, he was 1 minute late and this is what his momma discovered they do to punish him! They have done this to him 6 times for something that is out of this baby’s control! They make a mockery of him in front of the other students! The principal is responsible for this. His mom found him there, crying, and took him home for the day…”
Hunter’s mom, who suffers from osteoporosis, has shared with various news outlets that her condition “causes a lot of pain and in the morning, it’s especially hard for me to get going.” The pain, a 3-year-old sibling, and car problems sometimes means that Hunter is a few minutes late to school. Every single time he is late he is issued detention.
Mark Cmelo, Hunter’s father, is rightly upset about the punishment:
“I feel like they are shaming him for something that’s not in his control. It’s our fault. That form of punishment is not acceptable to me for my child and I don’t want to see anybody’s child shamed like that.”
When I read about the story, my heart immediately went out to Hunter because I have been there.
Thirty years ago, when I was in the third grade, I was given my very first school detention. At my elementary school, when a student broke a rule, their name was written on the chalkboard. The name remained on the board all week. If a rule was broken by the student again, a check mark went up next to the name. Three check marks meant a note would be sent home to be signed. If a fourth check mark went up, the student had to report to the school the following Saturday for detention.
I broke a rule almost every day. I couldn’t help it. No really, I couldn’t. The rule breaking was something entirely out of my control. As much as I wanted to get to school on time, if my mother was running behind, so was I. And so it was that every morning I arrived tardy to class, usually no more than five minutes, I would be given a check mark.
If a note was sent home, my mother would write a detailed response explaining that it was unfair to penalize me for the tardiness. My mom was in her second year of law school and was juggling studying with a part-time job clerking for a judge. I knew she was doing the best she could do. If only my teacher could understand.
Except she didn’t.
Every time I was late, I was scolded and told I should know better. Every time I was late, my teacher made a tiny production out of giving me my checkmark. The daily shaming was brutal all on its own, but there were other drawbacks to rule breaking. Students who had their name on the board with a check next to it were forbidden from going to recess. We had to remain in the classroom while our friends rushed out to the great outdoors for four-square or kickball. Our classroom windows looked out towards the playground, so we could hear the joyous laughter of our friends, but we couldn’t see what was going on because we had to place our heads down on our desks.
When I was issued my note for Saturday detention, I cried. Of course part of my tears were because I was ashamed and embarrassed, but mostly I was stressed over how my mother would be able to manage to get me to school on a Saturday.
When I presented the note to my mom, I was completely numb. My mother laughed, “This is RIDICULOUS!” She continued to remind me that the tardiness was not my fault and that it was wrong that I was being punished for it. Then she said the words that changed everything,
“I’m the one who should be serving this detention. Not you.”
When Saturday arrived, we saw parents drop their kids off at the front door of the elementary school and drive away. That’s not what my mom did. She parked. She walked in. She told the person who was handling the detention that she was there to serve it in my place. Without waiting for a response, my mom went over to the tiny elementary school-sized library chairs and sat down. I sat down next to her and smiled. I could feel the eyes of the other kids on us. It felt like SUCH a victory.
After my mom served detention with me, I was never issued another detention notice again and my teacher amazingly eased up on giving me checks for being tardy.
I asked my mom what inspired her to serve detention and she simply said, “Truth and justice.”
Reading Hunter’s story has made me want to investigate the tardy policy at my son’s school. I’ll be the person responsible for getting him to and from school for the next several years so if he is ever late, it will ALWAYS be my fault and never his. If there is a penalty to be issued for tardiness, it should be given to us, the parents.
Regardless of the policy, shaming of students for being tardy is just awful and cruel. Trust me, if a kid is running late to class because of something going on at home or a circumstance beyond their control, there are already complicated emotions going on. The very last thing that needs to happen is an authority figure making a kid feel guilty for something they have zero control over. If anything, this is the time to swoop in with compassion.
I wish Hunter’s teacher and principal had addressed his tardiness with kindness. What if they reached out to the parents to see if everything was OK at home. With daily tardies, clearly something was going on. It takes just as much energy to offer understanding as it does to make a joke of a kid. When you are putting a 6-year-old at a table by themselves with a divider around them, you are making a joke out of them. Behold! The kid who can’t get to school on time!
I’d also like to quietly give a nudge to parents who might be in a position to step up. Hunter lives just a mile away from his school. If there was a kid in my son’s class who needed help getting to school, I’d like to think I would step up and give that family a hand. I hope the families at Hunter’s school are surrounding his family with kindness and support.
Maybe policies can’t be changed, but if our kids are getting punished at school for being late, at the very least it’s us, the parents, who should be serving the detention.More On